8 Factors to Consider when Choosing Online Community Engagement Software
Selecting the right community engagement software for your consultation or project is an important decision. In the same way that location and time can dramatically impact your offline engagement so can your choice of platform for online engagement success. Ideally the right selection will help achieve the highest possible engagement, ensure you are communicating with the right people and overall save you a lot of time. The decision can mean the difference between a couple of anonymous signups and a thriving and engaging discussion with legitimate, quality and relevant feedback.
This post digs into the key considerations for selecting a platform that meets your needs. You will learn the different factors to consider, the key features you should know about and the right questions to ask so that you can make the best decision possible. You should also have a clearer understanding of your priorities. To further assist with the process we have also prepared a free downloadable checklist of the 19 questions to ask yourself when researching community engagement software platforms.
What you will learn in the blog post
- How to successfully evaluate online community engagement software
- What features and functionality contribute to a successful consultation
- How to identify the relevant tools for your engagement/consultation
- Verification – The importance of legitimate consultation
- Ease of Use – Maximize participation and minimize your frustration
- Double Sided Platform – Leverage existing results and build for the future
- Social Media and Web – Increase your participants
- Pricing – What’s it worth to you
- Support – Help you need when you need it
- Privacy and Security – Fulfill your obligations
- Community Engagement Toolkit – Core Features
1. Verification – Is your consultation legitimate?
Collecting information from people who qualify to participate has always been essential for making sure the results of an engagement or consultation are legitimate and defensible – two key requirements for overall success. Only by ensuring the data you collect is of the highest quality can the decision making be truly informed.
For traditional offline engagement it is significantly harder for a rogue individual or group with malicious intent to “troll” your survey or discussion and remain anonymous.
However when this engagement is brought online how do you stop it from happening and what is best practice? Naturally, you want to spread the word of your consultation but what if there is no process in place to ensure that the people participating really are who they say they are. How do you verify participants so you can be confident that the people contributing are
relevant to your consultation so your decision making is defensible?
While many consultations will not have any problems there are stories about survey, polls and discussions all being manipulated by trolls or people with a vested interest in skewing the results. A recent YouGov research in America puts the number of people admitting to being internet trolls at 28% 1. This has transferred to a local level when fake users have cropped up in such online engagements a Encinitas2. So you can see that reducing this risk is important.
How to prevent this from happening to you!
Ensuring that participants are verified so that you can have confidence in your decisions is therefore one of the most important elements when selecting an online engagement and consultation software.
One of the key criteria for participant involvement in a consultation relates to their geographic location e.g. Cities and Municipalities engaging residents, Planners and School Boards consulting neighborhoods. For this reason knowing that an individual is based at a specific geographic location can be incredibly powerful.
The process of verifying someone by where they live is known as “geo verification” and involves innovative technology that allows a participant to confirm their specific location. When your consultation has verified participants it promotes trust and transparency ensuring that the quality of feedback is much higher. It also ensures the data you collect is truly legitimate and defensible should you need to justify your findings.
The ability to filter by geography also brings an important dimension to your anonymous survey because you can confidently segment the findings to help determine different trends in different locations.
If you like more data and are interested in exploring trends deeper this information can be cross referenced with open source data to make your decision more informed. See this source for detailed data on many local neighborhoods.
Of course it is important to strike the right balance between confirming the person is relevant for your consultation but also avoiding the creation of a complicated sign up process that deters individuals from participating (privacy is key here and we talk more about that later). This leads us nicely onto a platform’s ease of use.
2. Ease of Use -Maximize participation and minimize frustration
Ease of use will impact everyone’s experience with the solution you select including how effectively your consultation runs and the level of engagement you receive from participants.
It is particularly important as you may be engaging with non technical individuals who will benefit from a logical, clear and easy signup process as well as an intuitive engagement area. The smoother this process the more feedback and engagement that will occur.
The best way to check an online software providers ease of use is to test the solution and ask yourself the following questions.
- How long did it take me to start a consultation?
- Is the interface intuitive i.e. is it clear where the information should be entered?
- How many steps does it take my participants to sign up? Important: The fewer fields required to sign up, the more people that will complete the process. However, you still want all the relevant information to make sure they are valid!
- When making your decision, consider that creating a good user experience when navigating the platform will form part of a company’s culture and will likely lead to further, smoother interactions for you in all areas.
Download our 19 point checklist for other questions to ask when selecting your software.
Once you have signed up to a demo consultation you can see how easy it is to navigate around your topic. Can you find the key areas to communicate your message and achieve your goals?
Are you able to preview your topic to see how it looks from the participants perspective?
If you are very tech savvy then test the community engagement software on friends, family and colleagues and get their opinions. What’s intuitive for one person does not work for all and it is important to make your consultation accessible.
An example of how a company can make a platform intuitive is PlaceSpeak’s one click consultation creation. You always have the option to talk to a sales person but you can start exploring the platform yourself to see how intuitively you can navigate around, all for free.
3. Double Sided Platform – Leverage existing results and build for the future
A double sided community engagement platform is one where participants have already signed up and agreed to be contacted for further consultations.
This can have two main advantages for you.
- If there has been community engagement in your area previously then there may already be potential citizens you can reach out to.
- It is also useful for your future consultations as community engagement and consultations are an ongoing process from which you will likely require feedback more than once. With a double sided platform you can go back to the people when creating your future topics. This offers excellent repeatability.
These benefits save time by making it easier to include large numbers quickly and easily. Additionally, in a double sided platform you can have the solution send emails on your behalf so you have one less thing to do.
4. Social Media and Web – Increase participants
To make sure you can easily promote your consultation, your choice of community engagement platform should have an easy way to carry out promotion.
Integration with social media is one example. Do you have the ability to easily share your consultation? Can participants share the consultation with their friends? A major advantage of online consultations is the cost advantage of reaching a larger audience. When you are signing up be sure to determine whether social media integrates into the community engagement software platform.
Social media does not only mean sharing the consultation via facebook and twitter. It also relates to how easily you can integrate video into your consultation. Video is a highly effective way to increase engagement and participant numbers with 92 percent of mobile video viewers share videos with others (Invodo). Elkhart County, IN Commissioner Mike Yoder has seen high levels of engagement by adding video to his updates.
An essential element of promoting your consultation will be through your own website and with PR. While you can direct people with a link you are most likely to capture their attention with a web widget embedded on your own website. This will allow you to visually represent more information on the consultation than simply text and a hyperlink. See the example below. While the web gives us the opportunity to reach a larger audience, having the right tools to do this most effectively is still an essential element.
5. Pricing – what is it worth to you
Your first priority will be getting the solution to meet your needs while remaining within your budget. Depending on your budget circumstances there may be trade-offs you will need to consider.
How much budget impacts the decision will be dependent on your circumstances but there are a few items to consider.
Is there a flexible pricing plan? Do you have to pay annually or is there a monthly option. Do they make your life easier by accepting credit cards as well as invoices? Do you have a trial period you can take advantage of? Download our free 19 point checklist and mark off whether a feature is important and if the solution has it or not. This will help you find the best one to meet your needs.
Pricing is important but also consider other costs such as those mentioned elsewhere in this guide i.e. if it’s cheap but difficult to set up or lacks essential features then what you save on purchase price you pay for in time and effort when it comes to getting meaningful engagement and results.
6. Support – Get the help you need when you need it
You should be able to tell from a provider’s website if they have an established track record of holding successful consultations. Look for community engagement and consultation case studies on their website as this should help build trust in their solution but also indicate their experience. Make sure when you are speaking to them that they can offer advice around your online consultation and making sure it integrates into your current efforts.
A platform should be designed so that you do not have any queries relating to its use (see our section on User Interface earlier). However should anything happen you want to make sure there is someone there to speak with. Always be sure to ask what hours the technical support teams works and when can you expect a reply with any query. Will the support be via email, telephone or live chat? A good provider will give you a service level agreement which outlines exactly what to expect. Do we post up times?
7. Privacy and Security
People like to have control over their personal information. Assuring participants that their personal data is safe and secure will encourage more citizen engagement and participation leading to more successful consultations – a win-win for everyone
8. Community Engagement Toolkit – Core Features
There are as many different ways to “do” community engagement as there are different communities however, the use of multiple, overlapping strategies is usually the most effective. There are many ready-to-use tools that can assist with various aspects of engaging a community. The most common tools found in a platform’s Community Engagement Toolkit are discussion boards, surveys, polls, interactive mapping, charrettes and reporting. These tools are designed in a way to supplement not replace offline engagement activities like focus groups, special events, public hearings, town hall meetings etc.
Discussion boards are a useful method for facilitating more open ended discussion and commentary between participants of a consultation. Proponents can ask multiple questions at a time and still maintain order with expandable threads. Conversations flow best when they are presented in a simple, flat forum where replies flow down the page in a line. This helps participants understand the fuller context of the conversation without breaking the flow into awkward pages.
Dynamic notifications are also key for keeping the conversation going. Ensure the engagement software you select has the capability to notify participants when their posts are commented on or their name is mentioned. Participants should also be able to customize their notification settings to what suits them best. Most people tend to prefer a daily digest instead of instant notification.
Some solutions offer an opinionation feature whereby participants can gauge the popularity of their comments in the discussion. Other participants have the opportunity to click the thumbs up or thumbs down button.
As discussed earlier, one of the important outcomes advantages of a platform that verifies participants in some way is the reduction in trolls and inappropriate comments. But particularly with highly emotional topics a discussion can get heated and you may need to step in. At this point moderation becomes important. One essential element of moderation is the speed at which it occurs. Once a comment that requires moderation is posted how long does it take for the issue to be resolved. Ask your provider what their process is for handling this issue and whether they have a solution for handling it on your behalf and the length of time a response takes.
Surveys and Polls
Ideally you should have access to a flexible look and feel, with easy to use templates, will make your job a lot easier when it comes to updating colours, font, and other design features. Multiple display formats add additional versatility. You may want to display questions one at a time (or sequentially), in blocks of related questions or all questions simultaneously depending on the type of consultation and what makes sense to achieve your desired result. Select a solution that includes a variety of different question types including open ended text, radio buttons, checkboxes, and drop-down lists. A matrix-style question for rating multiple statements along a common scale can be quite useful. Question text can include images and links, and various questions have extended customization options.
If you need to eliminate bias in the case where certain question options are paired up one after another can affect responses, randomisation can be a useful feature.
For your reporting needs, it’s a good idea to ensure that survey data can be exported in various formats such as SPSS syntax (.sps), comma separated value (.csv), Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft Word. Most survey tools will also offer built-in data analysis which lets you create charts, excel graphs, and other graphics – providing valuable insight over the entire groups of respondents, how they answered and what the answers mean.
POLLS – can only be taken once, immediate results, segmented reporting – geo spatial, a series of polls can be executed throughout the consultation process (need to elaborate on this)
In real estate, we’re told, the three most important factors are location, location and location. As discussed community engagement and consultation are also often dependent on a thorough grounding in place. Often you will need to define the spatial boundary within which your consultation will take place. Your community engagement platform should give you flexibility in how this is set up.
Can you choose a single “box” and only allow participants who live or work in that box to contribute feedback? Do you want people outside the box to participate as well? Maybe you do but with the caveat that all of their feedback will be tagged to indicate that they aren’t residents.
You may also want to break your consultation area into multiple “boxes”. In the past PlaceSpeak customers have had considerable success by dividing boundaries into neighbourhoods, school, catchment zones, wards, counties and metropolitan area. Organisations can choose to be as granular or broad as they like in setting their bounds, and in every case all the feedback they receive will be tagged to indicate which specific area the citizen providing the feedback is from. Often there are important differences in the way residents of different areas think and feel about a given issue, and the consultation map gives proponents access to those differences in a way that is difficult or impossible for most other consultation strategies.
Bonus: PlaceSpeak is currently the only platform offering this feature. For reference actually drawing the consultation boundaries can be accomplished in a few ways. You can just draw the boundaries on the map with your mouse, or potentially upload GIS format files (e.g. KML and Shapefiles) directly into the PlaceSpeak platform for more precise control. PlaceSpeak can also provide professional support in researching and building custom boundary sets to optimize the way feedback will be gathered and partitioned.
The second consultation map is optional, and is controlled mostly by participants themselves. If you’ve ever attended an open house where people are asked to stick stickers or Post-It notes on a giant map you’ll be familiar with the concept behind PlaceSpeak’s “Place It” map. This feature is available for some pricing tiers, and once turned on gives consultation participants the ability to leave their comments wherever they choose on a virtual map, providing highly spatial feedback to consultations where “where” is important. Proponents can define the area within which comments can be dropped, and can provide some structure to the feedback by optionally setting a small drop-down poll to be attached to every comment. This gives participants the freedom to make hyper-local suggestions, providing the proponent of the consultation with the benefit of resident’s very specific, targeted, local knowledge.
These types of features help distinguish a legitimate, defensible consultation from a basic social media discussion group. This is because often there are important differences in the way residents of different areas think and feel about a given issue, and the consultation map gives proponents access to those differences in a way that is difficult or impossible for most other consultation strategies.
It is clear that there are several key factors to consider when selecting the right community engagement software tool for your consultation. The objective of this blog post has been to help highlight what we feel are the most important based on our experiences with hundreds of consultations in North America and also UK and Australia.
Now that you are aware of the key factors the second step is making sure you understand which are most important to your specific consultation and what will give you the best chance of success by ensuring you obtain relevant, legitimate and defensible conclusions. To help with this we recommend downloading our 19 point checklist for selecting your community engagement software platform.
Do you have other factors you think are key when looking for the right platform? Why not leave your ideas and thoughts in the comments below.